Legislation would expand program to eight counties

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

OLYMPIA -- A unique program that exempts some small farm interns from wage laws could be expanded.

Nine people worked last season as farm interns under a pilot program in two counties authorized by the Washington Legislature in 2010. New legislation would expand the program to eight counties.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, sponsored both the initial measure and its extension, which clarifies some language and extends the program through 2017.

Interns are defined as individuals who provide services to a small farm primarily as a means of learning about agriculture.

Senate Bill 6392 retains the requirement that participating farms have to file an application with the Department of Labor and Industry describing work to be performed, wages to be paid and a description of the farm internship program.

Program interns are not considered employees under the minimum wage law and can be paid less for the duration of the agreement.

L&I created a special industrial insurance risk class so the interns would have workers compensation insurance.

In a hearing before the Senate Committee on Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection, farmer Ethan Schaffer of Skagit County said the internship program helps meet a growing need in the U.S.

He pointed out the aging farmer population and the need to replace those who retire. Schaffer said 70 percent of the farmland in the U.S. will change hands in the next 20 years, and 80 percent of that is in small or mid-size farms.

Many young people from non-agricultural backgrounds are entering the field, and internships give them a leg up, he said.

Jamie Felton said she had two internships in which she and the farmers agreed on the terms. She said the pilot program "seems like a lot of bureaucracy in lieu of a direct conversation."

"It seems like this bill is designed to allow the government to do all of the conversation and confrontations that we as individuals would have to do, and I can't see that as being a positive thing," she said.

Schaffer, who is executive director of Grow Food, a website that helps match interns with farms, said employers could exploit the program were it not for safeguards in the bill. It limits the size of participating farms and the number of interns, which is three per farm.

As to concerns about the government becoming involved in the tradition of apprenticeships, he said the government is already involved, and the program makes legal what had been illegal.

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